Cronulla move top with win over Manly
The boot of James Maloney has inspired the Cronulla Sharks to just their second win over the Manly Sea Eagles since 2008 with a gutsy 20-12 win at Southern Cross Group Stadium on Saturday night.
Maloney all but confirmed his place in Laurie Daley's NSW Blues side for the upcoming State of Origin series opener with four goals, a try assist and a crucial line dropout with the game in the balance.
His boot proved the difference on the night with both teams scoring three tries apiece and should be enough to reclaim his NSW jersey for the first time since 2013.
Andrew Fifita did his Origin hopes no harm with another dominant display with 170 metres, four tackle breaks and 33 tackles to help propel the Sharks to outright first on the ladder.
Manly made a raft of changes before kick-off with Brett Stewart's inclusion the biggest talking point. His return saw Tom Trbojevic move to left centre, while Jamie Lyon and Dylan Walker switched positions.
Walker relished the open pastures on the fringes, running for 150 metres, while halfback Daly Cherry-Evans had his best game of the season playing on the left side of the field.
The Sea Eagles were lucky to survive an early attacking raid with a Michael Ennis forward pass the only thing stopping Fifita from crashing over inside three minutes.
The home side wouldn't be denied six minutes later with last week's hat-trick hero Sosaia Feki steamrolling Stewart after a wonderful batted pass from Gerard Beale.
Cronulla could have - and probably should have – doubled their advantage midway through the first half when Chad Townsend opted to kick for an unmarked Valentine Holmes instead of going through the hands.
Trbojevic leapt high to save the day on that occasion but the resultant penalty for the Sea Eagles being offside enabled Maloney to push the lead out to eight points after 21 minutes.
After a relatively quiet start, Sharks fullback Ben Barba came to life to push the margin out to 12 30 minutes into the contest.
The livewire No.1 rose high to take a bomb in his in-goal before sprinting to the 20-metre line for the restart. Barba then made 30 metres to get his side in good position and two plays later threw the final pass as Holmes strolled over for his 10th try of the year.
The score looked destined to remain 12-0 at the break, but an ill-advised chip kick followed by a penalty put Manly on the attack nearing the half-time siren and the visitors made the hosts pay.
Playing on the left side of the field mattered little to Trbojevic as he ran onto a nice pass from Lewis Brown to crash over to give his side some momentum going into the second stanza.
It was a similar moment to the try Matt Parcell scored back in Round 3 when these sides last met, with his 37th minute try providing Manly with the impetus they needed to kick on after the break.
That certainly seemed the case just five minutes into the second half when a break from Dylan Walker was finished off two plays later by Jamie Buhrer who pounced on a Cherry-Evans grubber to make it a four-point game.
The comeback was complete just six minutes later when a clinical left-edge sweep ended with winger Brayden Wiliame running onto a cracking pass from Stewart to score in the corner.
Staring down the barrel of their first loss since March, the Sharks turned to the 16,601 fans in attendance for a lift; their noise enough to earn Cronulla its first penalty of the second half to gift Maloney another two points.
That lead looked to have lasted just three minutes as Wiliame was awarded his second try of the evening, only for the bunker to correctly rule Stewart had denied Barba an opportunity to compete for the ball in the lead-up.
With the game in the balance, Maloney came to the fore with a perfectly weighted kick resulting in a line dropout, before setting up Barba from the ensuing set to earn the Sharks their eighth straight win of 2016.
Sharks 20 (Sosaia Feki, Valentine Holmes, Ben Barba tries; James Maloney 4 goals) defeated Sea Eagles 12 (Tom Trbojevic, Jamie Buhrer, Brayden Wiliame tries) at Southern Cross Group Stadium). Half-time: 12-4 Sharks. Crowd: 16,601.